by Deanna Erickson
Learning from the Land
Anyone who has traveled through the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States will remember it distinctly as a place like no other. Towns are scarce, rivers are legendary and rocks seem to bend and twist toward a sky filled with harsh clear light. This is the Colorado Plateau, a region as marked by its geography as by its inhabitants. The land of the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo and Hopi, colonized by the pioneers, now includes a disparate mix of ranchers, miners, river runners, and migrants who landed here out of a general longing for vast and wild places. Gifted (or some would say cursed) with more National Parks then anywhere else in the country, Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas and vast tracts of National Forest, an inhabitant of the Colorado Plateau can hardly deny the significance of this unusual place.
In the middle of the Colorado Plateau, grappling with the wilderness and the human diversity, sits the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education. Since 1984, this small non-profit has quietly been connecting people with the land, fulfilling its’ mission of creating lifelong learning experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure, and conservation programs. Janet Ross, the Executive Director, founded the program after falling for the Plateau as an undergrad at Prescott College in Arizona. Originally, the school focused on programs dubbed “Southwest Edventures,” consisting of rollicking river trips, guided canyon hikes, and days spent tracing the rocky path of the Puebloan ancestors often referred to as the Anasazi.
In the late 1990’s, the outdoor industry began to set up shop on the Plateau. Big tour operators, with their heavyweight marketing tactics, made it clear that Four Corners School and its non-profit budget would need an alternate means of accomplishing its mission. In 1997, Ross, with her decades of experience in outdoor education, went to public school districts and simply asked them what they needed. Was it field trips? Trainings? Guided tours? The feasibility study lasted a year and interviews were conducted with superintendents, principals and teachers representing every school on the Colorado Plateau.
This is what the schools said: Field trips are one-shot wonders. The kids have a positive experience, but the long-term effect is limited and the input of resources is draining. Bring us a program that trains our teachers in outdoor education so that we can learn where we live. Our backyards are a potential classroom. Let’s take our students there.
The mandate made sense to the Four Corners School. In April of 1999, Ross hired naturalist and river runner Jon Orris as program manager. Working out of his living room on a minimal budget with just one volunteer, Jon had the program up and running by June. Christened the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project (or BOEP), the program set out to “promote understanding of the Colorado Plateau through interdisciplinary, experiential curricula through a roving teacher education and mentoring delivery system.” That summer, schools from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado enlisted teachers to participate in a ten-day intensive training in outdoor education methodology. The following autumn, Utah joined in.
Teachers who were accustomed to cinderblock walls decorated by looming clocks were suddenly playing among the Pinyon Pines and journaling under the Junipers. In their dim classrooms, they too longed for something more genuine and engaging. The BOEP validated their own love of their place. A compelling partnership between Four Corners School and teachers had begun.
The Bridge Between Vision and Reality
After delving into the methodology of outdoor education through the Summer Institute, a 6-day intensive field training held primarily outdoors, teachers land back in their classrooms, ensnared in the task of transferring their newfound enthusiasm to a classroom full of children, laced with parental and administrative pressures. Enter the Regional Coordinators, the mentoring component of the “roving teacher education and mentoring delivery system” referred to earlier.
In 2004, after years of piecing together teacher trainings on a shoestring budget, Jon and Janet sat down and created the program of their dreams on paper. The vision became a National Science Foundation grant proposal that received full funding for four years. This allowed the program to pay teachers to participate, offered them college credit for their work and to helped them purchase outdoor education resource centers for their classrooms. Additionally, it allowed Jon to hire a Regional Coordinator in each of the four states.
Hired for their expertise in outdoor education, most of the Regional Coordinators come equipped with a Master’s degree, classroom teaching experience and years of field experience. More importantly, they have an ability to encourage and inspire. They are the voice of experience that is there, for bi-monthly individual meetings, to help the teachers build inroads for outdoor education in their schools. Even when a busy principal doesn’t have the time to provide a teacher with an evaluation, the Regional Coordinator is there to offer feedback, observing outdoor lessons throughout the school year.“The greatest challenge is helping them realize that they do not need completely new lessons, they just need to modify the things they are already doing to make it relevant to place or culture or local animals and plants,” says Becky Kerr, the Regional Coordinator for New Mexico. Becky has thirteen years of science teaching under her belt, and created an outdoor classroom for middle school students in Farmington where she lives. She’s been in the classroom teacher’s shoes, and uses her own experience as a powerful example.
More than play, better than work
Jean Eardley teaches fifth grade in Moab, Utah and is a Bioregional Outdoor Educator. On a bright crisp day, she walks her classroom three blocks across town to test the water in a creek that they have come to know as a friend. The students have crouched in the dense brush, explored the winding footpaths, and visited after a flood to find everything changed. “Teaching outdoors is important because it provides real hands-on experiences that connect the abstract content of the classroom to a shared concrete experience. It is a way of getting students to ask questions which will hopefully lead them to want to know more. It creates an authentic learning environment where books become a resource that the students want to use, where writing becomes a way of expressing an experience they are anxious to share” says Eardley. She gathers her students together, introduces her parent helpers for the day, and following her lead, the group disappears into the low forest lining the creek.
On the Navajo Nation, Marcella Van Cleve is a school counselor, Girl Scout troop leader, and dorm mother who sometimes doubles as school secretary at the Pueblo Pintado boarding school. She enrolled in the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project partially because she believes it’s culturally relevant to her students. “The students I work with live in a very isolated part of New Mexico. I feel they identify with the culture, lifestyle and language they are surrounded by. They know this is their place” she says. On the largest indigenous nation in the U.S., students have much to learn from the land they walk on.
Julianne Van Buskirk studied Montessori-style education and now teaches elementary students in Cortez, CO. Her public school administration accepted requests from parents to create a Montessori school within their traditional school in order to keep the tax base they might have lost to a charter school. Julianne finds teaching bioregional lessons complementary to the self-directed learning approach she uses with her students, but teaching outside is more then that for her. “Teaching outdoors feels like home. It feels like tapping the essence of our experience of being human in the world. It is when I feel most like a teacher, when I am guiding the children to an understanding of their place, an understanding that allows them to discover, shape and realize their human potential.”
There is magic inherent in learning from the land, but for both teachers and BOEP staff, the magic is the fruitful reward of dedicated hard work. Besides meeting with their Regional Coordinator twice each month, each teacher is asked to teach five lessons for observation, far more feedback then they receive even from principals who typically observe them once or twice a year. The outdoor lessons focus on the Colorado Plateau and cultivate an appreciation of its human cultures, its wide diversity of habitats, and its bizarre geology. They are encouraged to integrate not just science into the outdoors, but reading, math and history. In the middle of winter, teachers and staff bundle up in their warmest clothes and spend a day learning how to brave the elements with their students. Besides learning activities like tracking and snowshoeing, they are briefed in proper dress and the symptoms of hypothermia. Come spring, teachers are encouraged to present what they’ve learned to their fellow educators at the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project Regional Conference. They provide professional development opportunities, including in-services at their own schools, and are required to mentor fellow teachers. A tenant of the BOEP: the expertise of the classroom teacher is a valuable resource to be shared.
One year after their initial Summer Institute, the BOEP teachers can be found gathered in the early morning light on the banks of the San Juan River in Bluff, Utah, fulfilling their final requirement. Jon Orris, still a licensed river guide, loads gear, water, food and finally, teachers onto sturdy rafts. They disappear down the river for three days to learn, share and finally, celebrate, their fingers trailing through the cool murky water of their home.
Like Nothing Else Out There
A life-long devotee of outdoor education, I joined the BOEP in September of 2006. I had taught in what I believe to be the best possible environments; on a farm in California, in Colorado’s rocky wilderness, aboard whale-watching vessels in Canada, and floating in a raft of sea kayaks on Lake Superior. My students were often the lucky ones, those who studied in well-funded private schools or who had the resources to attend summer camps. I was struck by the fact that children who were profoundly moved by spending long days outside would spend most of their year indoors, learning from standardized textbooks. The standardization wasn’t necessarily negative, but it seemed to distance kids from the knowledge they gained growing up in their local playgrounds and creek beds, the kind of knowledge that had made me a lover of wilderness. There had to be a way to make these hands-on outdoor experiences accessible to more students, to bring the exhilarating wilds into the public schools.
The Bioregional Outdoor Education Project is a model of how to accomplish this. Like any small non-profit organization, the program has its struggles. Future funding is unreliable. Regional Coordinators spend long days on the road and struggle to meet all the needs of the twelve teachers they mentor each year.Teachers themselves are classically overwhelmed and often lack the planning time they need to truly integrate outdoor education in their classrooms. Administration is sometimes unsupportive. But despite all these roadblocks, the program is still effective. Teachers network with fellow teachers, parents get involved through field trips and parent events, and when standardized test scores improve, administration gets on board. In actuality, the BOEP can function as a community building initiative. In the most effective scenarios, the idea takes root in the community, and so it continues on.
In a public school, it may only take one teacher to really make a difference. One teacher can write a grant, build an outdoor classroom or arrange class meetings with elders in the town historical society. One teacher can begin to teach Navajo history with as much validity as the history of America’s European colonization is taught. One teacher can plan a backpacking trip that builds confidence for a child. I find the BOEP inspirational, because it simply hands tools to teachers. They are the ones who make the change.
Says Program Manager Jon Orris “Children have been losing their sense of place for a long time and so have the teachers. BOEP allows both of them to reconnect with their home in a very relevant way”.
Deanna Erickson is currently the Assistant Coordinator with the Bioregional Outdoor Education Project. Originally from Wisconsin, she has taught and traveled all over the world, and is now happily exploring the red rock desert near Moab, UT. For more information on the BOEP, see www.fourcornersschool.org.